Arts Listings

Books: Oakland Duo Seek Breakthrough in Environmental Policy

By Michael Howerton
Tuesday January 29, 2008

A pair of Oakland writers have offered a compelling blueprint for the world’s energy ministers as they debate how best to address global warming and replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. 

In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, longtime writers and organizers for a variety of environmental groups, argue that countries that want to get serious about combating global warming will have to start doing more than just finding better ways to limit carbon emissions—they will have to find new ways to create and invest in clean energy. 

In fact, Nordhaus and Shellenberger write, the “the politics of limits,” which they see as defining the environmental movement, have failed to address the challenges posed by global warming. What is needed, they say, is a new approach built on investment in technological innovation and financial security, not on limiting economic potential and talking about the coming ecological apocalypse. 

According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger, we must find a way forward rather than concentrating only on how to reverse our path. The authors have expanded on the theme of their 2004 article “The Death of Environmentalism,” which raised quite a few eyebrows at the time for criticizing the accepted gospel of how to best protect the environment. 

The authors point out that only a few of the countries that signed on to Kyoto will reduce their emissions at all by the deadline. Most will meet the required 5 percent reduction by buying carbon reduction credits from developing countries. The authors express little hope that the Kyoto limits-based approach is the answer to reducing real emissions as the global demand for energy is expected to grow more than half by 2030 and carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise 55 percent in that time unless cleaner energy sources are discovered.  

Nordhaus and Shellenberger propose a combination of investments in technology and economic development to drive the quest for these sources. “We argue for a pro-growth agenda that defines the kind of prosperity we believe is necessary to improve the quality of life and to overcome ecological crisis,” they write. “One of the places where this politics of possibility takes concrete form is at the intersection of investment and innovation.” They say a pro-growth agenda can help stabilize the climate. Environmentalists can’t solve the ecological crisis, they contend, because only those who put prosperity first have the ability to push for such a revolution in our politics to prepare for and address global warming. 

Despite the growing ubiquity of green merchandise, media coverage, and talk among politicians about ending global warming, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out that the environment remains a low priority and is actually decreasing in importance among most voters. The environmental movement as we have known it in this country for the past 40 years has stalled, they argue. It has become a partisan issue and worse than that one that doesn’t effectively motivate voters on the left. Environmental groups have become just another special interest group, the authors argue, focused on a sole issue, often to the detriment of competing progressive causes. Sure, most people say they favor protecting wetlands, improving the air and reducing global warming, but when it comes to priorities, jobs, crime and health care are justifiably higher concerns for almost everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike. 

Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out that only with rising affluence do people turn their attention to certain quality of life issues such as environmentalism. In this way, economic security is the basis for ecological concern. Americans have become more affluent and less secure at the same time, they write. With growing job insecurity, greater economic disparity, rising health care costs and growing debt, Americans in general feel less in control of their lives than they did a generation ago when sympathy with environmental causes was stronger. “It is only when people are feeling in control, secure and free to create their lives that they behave expansively and generously toward the collective,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger write.  

The authors propose that progressives stop feeding this insecurity by telling horror stories about the coming ecological collapse, such as Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth, and instead look for ways to create more secure and healthier communities where people feel able to seek quality-of-life issues that include ecological concerns. Nordhaus and Shellenberger propose that new environmentalists look at how successful evangelical Christians have been in such community building, paying attention to the needs and values of how people live and creating new ways for them to belong and feel fulfilled. 

On the international level, they argue for debt elimination for countries like Brazil and a new understanding that certain countries, such as ours, can no longer leverage their own economic national interests against the world’s ecological needs. The authors devote a chapter to the economic and ecological challenges facing Brazil, explaining how the country’s crippling debt payments are responsible for exacerbating the deforestation of the Amazon and preventing the country from addressing the material needs of its citizens, denying the society any possibility of striving toward the prosperity that is needed to elevate ecological concerns among its citizens. They write: “Until the world’s wealthiest countries seriously support Brazil’s goals for itself, the colossus of the south will have neither the means nor the motives to save the Amazon.” 

In this way, they argue, environmentalists must stop seeing new prosperity in countries like China and India as a threat to ecological stability and understand that along with the obvious dangers and challenges there also exist opportunities to create new environmental values there. And likewise, in the Unites States, the answer for a more efficient way of living is to increase urban density. Nordhaus and Shellenberger ask why some should have the right to privilege their neighborhood (or their county) over others. “In the name of opposing development that is ‘out of scale with the neighborhood,’ they end up blocking the transformation of American communities into vibrant, creative, and high-density cities,” the authors write. Nordhaus and Shellenberger tell us that we have to prepare for climate change, that the reality of global warming is here and that means that we have to learn how to live differently.  

They give credit to veteran environmentalists who fought for limits effectively in winning the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, but the fight against global warming is a different beast, they say, and it’s time for the old leaders to step aside. According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger the old strategies of pushing for caps on emissions, reductions on manufacturing and bans on chemicals are inadequate to address such a complex problem as global warming. Without any vision for forward motion, speaking only about limits and what we can’t or shouldn’t do, the authors conclude that environmentalists have become the naysayers of the nation, the killjoys in the conversation about how to move forward.  

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have been part of crafting a new Apollo project on clean energy, calling for the investment of $300 billion in energy markets over the next decade to help propel technological breakthroughs in wind, solar, mass transit, carbon sequestration, hydrogen and other energy sources. “A new Apollo project tells an overarching story about America,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger write. “It begins by acknowledging what America is great at: imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future.” 



By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  

Houghton Mifflin Company. 2007. $25.